By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully
In the fall of 2012, a professor, a machinist union steward, an advocate for immigrants and a couple of employees approached the owners of a restaurant in St. Cloud.
The owners had not given the employees the wages they had been promised, so the group banded together to request that the wages be paid.
At the end of the meeting, the owners agreed to pay the couple what they earned, following through with their promise. The action was an early victory for members of the group, most of whom would become board members of the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, which incorporated as a 501c3 in the fall of 2013.
“Workers, by themselves, have a lot of fear,” said Casey Hudek, treasurer of the Greater Minnesota Worker Center and field representative with the East Central Area Labor Council. “When the community leaders partner with workers, we have good successes.”
In the summer of 2013, volunteers who would start another fledging organization, the Yes Network, brought neighborhood kids together to eat and play in a supervised environment at a time when they weren’t able to receive free and reduced-price lunches through school.
Parents accompanying the kids that summer also had an opportunity to converse with each other, sharing the joys and challenges of raising children.
“It’s nice to know the people here,” said Lily Achman, a Yes Network site coordinator for Bel Clare Estates in St. Cloud. “If we need a favor, we can ask [other parents.] My kids like to hang out with other kids. My 2-and-a-half-year-old was really shy, so it’s nice to see him interact with others.”
The Greater Minnesota Worker Center and the Yes Network are both recipients of Catholic Campaign for Human Development national grants for 2014. An intern for the local CCHD office is also funded with national funds.
CCHD is a program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops designed to alleviate the root causes of poverty. Money for national grants is received through collections across the country. Seventy-five percent of funds a diocese raises are designated for national grants. Twenty-five percent stays in the diocese for local projects and organizations.
“CCHD looks at the injustices and systems that cause poverty and breaks them,” said Kathy Langer, diocesan director of CCHD. “It’s exciting to watch people who felt hopeless realize they can make a difference for themselves and see that there is hope.”
In the last year, funds that remained in the diocese were distributed to Hands Across the World, Staples-Motley Beyond Poverty, Asamblea de Derechos Civiles and for a bus to the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition Day on the Hill (see accompanying story).
This year’s local CCHD intern, Britt Ortmann from Chippewa Falls, Wis., is a student at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville. She attended training in Washington, D.C., and plans to promote the collection and be involved with the funded groups.
“With CCHD you feel solidarity with people and work for systemic change,” Ortmann said.
To receive funding, an organization must abide by the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church. It cannot support or promote same-sex marriage, discrimination, racism, capital punishment, abortion or euthanasia, for example.
Local groups that desire to receive national funds must fill out a pre-application, then complete a full application, participate in a site visit and receive approval from a local grants committee, Bishop Donald Kettler and the U.S. Bishops’ CCHD subcommittee.
The Greater Minnesota Worker Center will use its $35,000 grant to rent an office starting Oct. 1. The funding also will help pay the salary for a full-time labor organizer. Additional funding is being secured through other organizations and donors.
Two part-time temporary labor organizers also will be hired with other funding. So far, the worker center has been run by volunteers and in-kind work.
The organization hopes to partner with workers to address issues such as employee rights, safety, low wages, lack of stable employment and voter registration.
“We’re involving people who have been boxed out,” Hudek said. “We let them share their story and be listened to. … The Worker Center is a way to support workers. We need to make sure workers have a decent life.”
Kathy Harris hands food to Jesus Carlos while Jaquelin Salmeron watches during the summer food program in July at Bel Clare Estates in St. Cloud. The Yes Network, a recipient of CCHD national funding, is a sponsor for the program. Photo by Kurtis Neu, Yes Network
The worker center was started through conversations involving Steve Philion, a sociology professor at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Hudek and other community members, especially from immigrant and refugee communities. Other faith-based and community organizations have become involved.
One of the center’s victories so far, in addition to encouraging restaurant owners to pay their employees fairly, happened when other workers approached the center with concerns about a temp agency that was hiring workers for meat processing plants. The workers were being paid in debit cards, which deducted fees for using them, so the workers were not receiving their full wages.
Leaders from the worker center and Community Grassroots Solutions asked one meat packaging plant to stop using the temp agency and to hire their workers directly. The plant agreed. The worker center would like other meat processing plants to stop using the temp agency so there is more accountability for workers and wages are fully compensated.
The Yes Network became a non-profit in 2014 as a way to improve communities. It began as an umbrella organization for a summer lunch program, and organizers hope to add new types of yearlong programming.
“It is people working together to help themselves in their own communities,” said Ruth Wiechman, community organizer of the Yes Network. “If we bring people together and give them coaching and resources, they can solve the problems that are most pressing to them.”
This summer, the lunch program served 55,621 meals at 25 sites in St. Cloud, St. Joseph, Cold Spring and Rockville.
The Yes Network works as a sponsor for the summer food program by providing volunteers, part-time employees and stipends for site coordinators. The food is funded through the federal government and the food service provider at St. Cloud State University. Other organizations and donors also made the program possible by helping with leadership development, site development and delivery of meals.
The Yes Network will use its $30,000 CCHD grant for stipends for site coordinators and to develop leadership for yearlong activities for families and communities.
“Our goal is to help people get together and get to know each other,” said Kurtis Neu, co-founder and creative content producer of the Yes Network. “When they know each other, it’s easier to address community issues.”
Getting to know each other and helping each other solve problems in common is what CCHD is all about, said Langer.
“This funding helps people help themselves,” she said.
The collection for CCHD in the St. Cloud Diocese will be Sept. 20 and 21. To donate, use the designated envelope in your packet of parish offering envelopes. If you do not have an envelope, you can send a check, written out to CCHD, to the Department of Social Concerns, Catholic Charities, 911 18th Street N, St. Cloud, MN 56303.